The Real Slumdogs


Slumdog Millionaire brought the plight of India’s poorer children to worldwide attention. John O’Brien examines the social inadequacies that the film highlights.

An intensely powerful film, Slumdog Millionaire recounts the struggles of an orphan from the slums of Mumbai. Interspersed with flashbacks to his childhood, the film graphically portrays the hardships endured by the millions of Indians who live in ramshackle huts on the outskirts of major cities, in most appalling conditions.

The crux of the film’s plot is the inability of those in power to believe that a boy from the slums could correctly answer questions on the TV show, Who Wants to be a Millionaire? While this may seem relatively superficial on the surface, it underpins the attitudes of Indian authorities towards young people from the slums – what contribution to society could they possibly make?

Although the last ten years have been good for the Indian economy, life for the country’s slum dwellers remains wretched. Children die every day from diarrhoea, measles and other easily preventable diseases. For many, home is a smoke filled eight foot by eight-foot hut and rats are seen as a sign of good luck, as any scraps of food attract them.

While the physical poverty is unmistakable, perhaps it is the mental poverty that echoes loudest. Children who grow up in these dire conditions are unlikely to ever break free from them. They are trapped in a vicious cycle of poverty and ignorance, a cycle that they have watched claim the lives of brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers.

Many aid workers are quietly satisfied that Slumdog Millionaire has focused the world’s attention on the atrocious living conditions experienced by many Indians. However, there is considerable outrage too, with many in government circles lambasting the film, claiming that it ‘distorted reality’ and gave only ‘a foreigner’s view of India’. Many middle class Indians are upset over what they feel is the film’s reinforcement of stereotypical Western views about India.

“Children die every day from diarrhoea, measles and other easily preventable diseases.”

However, statistics would seem to lend credence to the filmmaker’s adaptation. According to the United Nations, there are 607 towns with slums in India, with a total population of over 45 million people. Speaking before he stepped down from his post, then UN Secretary General Kofi Annan declared, “Slums represent the worst urban poverty and inequality. Yet, the world has resources, know-how and the power to eradicate these living conditions.”

Access to sanitation and healthcare facilities is abysmal. There are public toilets and water taps in many slums, but sanitation remains poor with open sewers running along alleyways. The resulting health problems are not surprising. This often leaves the many tuberculosis sufferers staring into the abyss, preparing for the worst – disposable income is not a commodity in ready supply in the slums.

There are schools in these basic towns, but they are woefully ineffective. Classes of sixty children are the norm. The dropout rate from these schools is extraordinarily high. There are any number of reasons for this; a lack of good quality teachers, poor hygienic conditions, a lack of proper educational guidance or the lack of physical infrastructure. 20 per cent of slum schools have no buildings at all. These schools tend to operate in tents or out in the open. In 2005, there were 52 upper primary schools operating without a building in and around Delhi. It’s hard to believe that this is an improvement yet there were no such schools in 1995.

It’s hard to draw a concrete conclusion from that statistic. On the one hand, there are now more educational institutions attempting to teach the children of the slums. But on the other hand, these new schools are vastly under resourced and unlikely to provide their students with the tools they need to start a life beyond the slums.

There is a broader societal problem facing these children. Frequently referred to as ‘untouchables’, settled Indians often ostracise those who live in the poorest areas. Those children that do manage to stay in full-time education are faced with a final barrier that blocks their integration into society, prejudice.

The most important feature of Slumdog Millionaire’s release is that it has ignited an internal debate within India. While the international community can give temporary aid to those most in need, it is the Indian government and people that have the power to institute the lasting social and economic changes that could lift millions out of poverty.

The central premise of Slumdog Millionaire is hope – apparently insurmountable obstacles can always be overcome. Millions of Indians will be wishing that the debate raging in their country following the film’s release will deliver something to hope for.